Parisian Proustians were perplexed in 2021 by the scarcity of events celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great French writer Marcel Proust. Happily, the Musée Carnavalet’s exhibition “Marcel Proust: Un Roman Parisien (A Parisian Novel)” arrived just in time in December 2021 and will run well into 2022, the centenary of his death.
For Proust lovers, the exhibition is pure joy, immersing visitors in the writer’s world. There are photos and paintings galore, of course, of people, places and events associated with him, but also many, many fascinating curiosities that will thrill any true Proustian.
One example is a datebook for the year 1906, used by Proust in 1909 to keep track of details for his novel that needed to be verified and, in 1913, to note the movements of his great love Albert Agostinelli during three days in August, when Proust had his secretary followed by a private detective. Proust fans will not be surprised by the author’s tracking of the model for the character Albertine, the mistress of In Search of Lost Time’s virulently jealous narrator.
Among the many objects on show is a Théâtrophone, a service Proust subscribed to in 1911, which allowed him to listen (in stereo on two headphones) to live performances from the Opéra Garnier over the telephone.
Visitors will also find a police report listing Proust as one of the men found drinking champagne (after hours!) during a raid of a gay house of prostitution in the Hôtel Marigny (which still stands at 11, rue de l’Arcade) in 1918. Homosexual relations were not a crime at the time in France, so Proust was not arrested and, to his great relief, his name did not appear in the newspaper the next day.
Anyone who knows the Musée Carnavalet will already be familiar with Proust’s narrow brass bed and other furnishings from his famous cork-lined room. A lock of his hair, cut off on his deathbed, is presented in a frame, along with a deathbed portrait of him by Man Ray.
Above all, don’t miss the video clips in which people who actually knew Proust, including Jean Cocteau and Paul Morand, tell stories about him. It is full of such nuggets as Simone André-Maurois’s story of how Proust showed up at her parents’ home at 11pm one night when she was 13 years old because he wanted to have a look at her as a possible model for Mademoiselle Saint-Loup, the young daughter of Gilberte Swann and Robert de Saint-Loup in the novel. She was furious to be awakened from a sound sleep, but all was forgiven when she met Proust, a man of “bewitching charm.”
Cocteau tells an amusing anecdote about visiting Proust in the evening and asking him to read aloud from his novel. His guests had trouble understanding him because he could not stop laughing as he read (many people are unaware of how funny the novel can be). According to Cocteau, Proust “kept interrupting his reading, saying, ‘This is silly! This is silly!’”
Paul Morand notes that Proust spoke just as he wrote, in long, layered sentences, and quotes Proust’s expansive excuse for ringing Morand’s doorbell one night at midnight. In another incident, the ailing, tired Proust – whom Morand describes as not at all effeminate but brave, virile and full of “moral authority” – apparently punched an American who tried to steal away from him the only taxi available late at night outside the Ritz.
Also very touching is a 1962 interview on film with Celeste Albaret, Proust’s devoted maid, in which she tears up, 40 years after his death, when she recalls the day Proust told her he had written “fin” at the end of his novel.
Proustophiles will need no further encouragement to visit this wonderful plunge into le petit Marcel’s Paris. Others, one hopes, will be inspired by the exhibition to read the entertaining and enlightening masterpiece that is In Search of Lost Time.Favorite